Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Holy Ambition

Presumably, no one here remembers the Teapot-Dome scandal from almost a century ago. But, if you are a Downton Abbey fan like me, then you do remember Maggie Smith explaining to Penelope Wilton how that scandal was the usual one of people exploiting a public good for private profit.  It’s indeed an old story, a story common to every time and place, this very human temptation to exploit some public good for one’s private purpose. So perhaps we should not be at all surprised by the audacity of James and John, for whom the kingdom of God which Jesus was revealing suggested to them an opportunity for personal professional advancement.

When it comes to human behavior, there really does seem to be nothing new under the sun. In today’s Gospel [Matthew 20:17-28], Jesus has again told his disciples what lies in store for him in Jerusalem. The first time he did this, Peter had tried to talk him out of it, prompting both a severe reprimand and a no-nonsense instruction on what being a disciple really means. The second time, the disciples then argued among themselves about which was the greatest. When asked what they’d been arguing about, their silence suggested at least some sense of embarrassment. Here, however, with no hint of embarrassment, two of Jesus’ most favored disciples (and thus the ones most especially susceptible to a sense of entitlement) have audaciously applied for the best seats in the kingdom.

Not surprisingly, the other 10 quickly became indignant. Apparently, they neither accepted nor were willing to cater to the particular status hierarchy favored by James and John. The 10’s jealous indignation at the two brothers’ sense of entitlement in turn prompted yet another much needed instruction from Jesus – clarifying both what his life is about and what the life of any would-be disciple must be about, a vocation in which neither entitlement not jealousy has any rightful place.

What makes this incident stand out so wonderfully is the brilliant way Jesus handled his hard-to-teach disciples – both the 2 ambitious brothers and the 10 jealous others. Jesus was obviously a very good teacher. He recognized his disciples’ natural ambition. Rather than simply condemning them, he affirmed their ambition and then gave it completely new content.

So you want to be great, Jesus asks his disciples – and, through them asks us. OK, then, be great – but not by imitating all those rich and prominent people you all admire and envy so much, but by imitating me. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” How’s that for an ambition to aspire to, an accomplishment to envy?

If following Jesus is to have any real meaning, Jesus is telling us, then it must be different with us from the way it is with the rest of the world. By his own life – and above all by his death – Jesus illustrated that, by showing how different it is with him from the way it tends to be with us in our world. Our task is not to accommodate that world, which is just being the way the world is, but to change our relationship with that world – but to do so first and foremost by letting Jesus himself change us.

Homily for the annual Ecumenical Lenten Service, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 20, 2019.

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